Kegel exercises: The benefits and risks - Ruth Health

Kegel exercises: The benefits and risks

Fast facts:

  • Kegels should not be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution to all pelvic floor issues.
  • A pelvic floor is a group of muscles, ligaments, and tissues that support your pelvic organs. It affects many areas of your health and wellness.
  • Certain kinds of Kegels may be appropriate for some individuals experiencing weak pelvic floor muscles, but not all. In some cases, they can do more harm than good.
  • Ruth Health makes it easy to focus on your pelvic health during pregnancy and postpartum. Learn more about our individualized 30-minute virtual sessions.

If you’ve ever been told to “do your Kegels,” you’re not alone. Kegel exercises are too often treated as a one-size-fits-all solution to any type of pelvic floor issue. They’ve become so synonymous with pelvic health that many publications and websites simply refer to Kegels as pelvic floor exercises.

We’re here to set the record straight. Kegels are one type of pelvic floor exercise. 

They may be appropriate for some individuals dealing with some types of pelvic floor issues. For others, not so much. And in some cases, Kegel exercises can do more harm than good.

So, in a world of many pelvic floor exercises, why are Kegels given so much attention? And which pregnancy and postpartum exercises are most effective for pelvic health? Glad you asked! We cover that and other important Kegel questions below.

What is my pelvic floor?

A pelvic floor is a group of muscles, ligaments, and tissues at the bottom of your torso. It supports your pelvic organs: the bladder, bowels, and uterus. The urethra, vagina, and anus also pass through the female pelvic floor.

It serves several important functions:

  • Allows you to have comfortable and pleasurable sex
  • Supports healthy bladder and bowel function
  • Keeps your pelvic organs in the right place
  • Works with your abdominal muscles to stabilize your lower back and hips
  • Pumps blood to the heart, boosting circulation and reducing swelling

When these muscles don’t function as they should, a variety of pelvic health issues may occur, including the following:

  • Chronic painful sex
  • Urinary or fecal incontinence
  • Bladder or rectal dysfunction or pain
  • Pelvic organ prolapse
  • Hip, back and/or shoulder pain
  • Shallow breathing

Why are Kegels given so much attention?

Kegels were one of the first pelvic floor exercises to gain mainstream popularity. The exercise dates back to the 1950s when American gynecologist Arnold Henry Kegel suggested it as a non-surgical solution for pelvic health issues. 

Since then, it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s been touted for its ease and effectiveness. In truth, it isn’t always effective.

What are Kegel exercises?

Kegel exercises involve contracting and relaxing certain pelvic floor muscles. The pelvic floor consists of 14 muscles across five layers, and a Kegel typically targets several muscles at a time.

When properly performed, Kegels can help some individuals strengthen their pelvic floor muscles and boost endurance. If Kegels are a part of your physical therapy treatment, you may be advised to perform multiple sets of Kegel exercises.

There are different types of Kegels, including the following:

  • Short contractions, which work the fast-twitch muscle fibers that quickly compress to prevent urinary incontinence. To do this type of Kegel, lift your pelvic floor muscles and hold the contraction for 1-2 seconds before releasing.
  • Long hold contractions, which also work on your slow-twitch muscle fibers, building additional strength and endurance. Contract the same muscles, but more gradually. Hold the contraction for longer.

If long hold contractions are part of your treatment plan, you will likely build up to a longer hold.

What are the benefits and cautions of Kegels?

There are different types of pelvic floor dysfunction, with different underlying causes. Kegels may be appropriate for some individuals experiencing weak, or hypotonic muscles. 

If performed correctly as part of an individualized treatment plan, Kegels can strengthen the pelvic floor. This can prevent or treat pelvic health issues such as urinary or fecal incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. Some individuals also find that Kegel exercises lead to more pleasurable orgasms.

However, not everyone can properly contract their pelvic floor muscles to perform a Kegel — and not everyone needs to. If your muscles are overly active or tense, aka hypertonic, Kegels can worsen the problem. This is why it’s important to consult with an experienced physical therapist before starting pelvic floor exercises.

Even if Kegels are right for you, over-exercising any muscle can be harmful. And in order for any muscle to truly have strength, it must be able to release as much as it contracts.

Are Kegels important to do during pregnancy and after birth?

Anyone can develop pelvic health issues — your pelvic floor is impacted every day by movement and posture — but it is especially common during pregnancy and postpartum.

Carrying the weight of your baby 24/7 during pregnancy and the act of pushing during childbirth both significantly impact your pelvic floor. C sections can also cause pelvic floor dysfunction.

Pelvic floor physical therapy is important during pregnancy and after birth. However, that does not necessarily mean Kegels. Consult with an experienced physical therapist to learn which pregnancy workouts and pregnancy exercises are right for you.

Are there alternatives to Kegels?

Yes! Our providers often recommend heel slides and toe taps to strengthen weak pelvic floor muscles. We describe these exercises in more detail here.

If your pelvic floor muscles are too tense, a physical therapist can recommend appropriate exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing.

Will my pelvic floor recover from childbirth?

Whether delivering vaginally or by c section, be prepared to give your pelvic floor some TLC after childbirth.

Many women have some degree of damage to the pelvic floor muscles after pregnancy and delivery, including c section deliveries. This occurs from many physical aspects of pregnancy, not only the act of pushing during labor.

The good news is that pelvic health issues are highly treatable! For some women, the pelvic floor and vaginal muscles gradually strengthen and regain their function as part of the recovery process. 

Other birthing people may need physical therapy. If that’s the case, be sure to work with a pelvic floor specialist who can recommend a treatment plan just for you!

Pelvic floor training and recovery with Ruth Health

No two bodies are built the same, and at Ruth Health, we take an individualized approach to pelvic floor training and recovery.

Our 30-minute virtual sessions blend physical therapy with fitness to deliver the pelvic floor TLC that your body needs.

Learn more or book now.

Ruth Health

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